RECOMMENDED International Stud
RECOMMENDED Fugue in a Nursery
Widows And Children First!
Andrew J. Villarreal gives the year’s most extraordinary performance as flamboyant but mush-hearted Jewish drag queen Arnold Beckoff in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, making Theatre Out’s rarer-than-rare revival well worth seeing despite the flawed execution of the first two of its three one-act plays.
International Stud introduces us to Arnold in full drag queen mode, the 20something night club entertainer navigating the pre-AIDS 1970s New York City bar scene, back rooms and all, while embarking on a romantic relationship with hunky bisexual Ed Reiss (Alessandro Nori).
Fugue In A Nursery flashes forward a year to a weekend in the country that has Arnold and his “shamelessly beautiful” eighteen-year-old boyfriend Alan (Dylan Wallace) awkwardly sharing farmhouse digs with Ed and his seemingly understanding new girlfriend Laurel (Jennifer Pearce).
Widows And Children First! completes the trilogy with Arnold, now thirty, welcoming both his overbearing mother (Lori Kelley) and a once again single former lover for a visit to the Manhattan apartment he now shares with teenage David (Kaden Cutler), the gay foster child he plans to adopt.
Stylistically, Torch Song Trilogy’s three acts (which together won the 1982 Best Play Tony award) could not be more different, and each benefits from Tito Ortiz’s imaginative direction, though some Act One and Two choices could stand rethinking.
International Stud is best when the spotlight is on Arnold, the astonishing Villarreal giving us the sassy drag entertainer in all his shadings—sweet and sarcastic, hard-shelled and mush-hearted, and always heartwarmingly/heartbreakingly real—and the scene that has Arnold carrying on a one-sided conversation while being plowed in countless contortions by an anonymous backroom top could not be more delicious.
Still Ortiz’s decision to have four male and female cast members in slinky black gowns (including a thirteen-year-old boy!) lip-sync what was written to be a single live female vocalist is a major misstep, and Ed’s non-native accent proves distracting.
Fugue In A Nursery demonstrates Ortiz’s directorial talents at their most ingenious, substituting for the script’s bigger-than-king-sized bed three wooden tables which the act’s two couples keep reconfiguring while performing an amusing if decidedly uncomfortable roundelay both as participants and as observers.
More, however, could be done to underline just how awkward a position each character finds him or herself in, in particular Laurel, whose apparent acceptance of her boyfriend’s gay ex-lover ought to mask greater conflict and pain.
Fortunately, Fierstein and Theatre Out save the best for last in Women And Children First!, Torch Song Trilogy’s longest, most realistic, and most emotionally powerful act, one in which Villarreal meets his equal in the magnificent Kelley, steel and ice concealing fires of maternal love, with a delightful, thoroughly winning Cutler giving as good as he gets (though I can’t help wishing Ortiz had made David thirteen-going-on-fourteen to match the actor’s age and appearance).
Thirty-four years after its Broadway debut, Torch Song Trilogy has become a time capsule of a post-Stonewall, pre-epidemic world, nostalgic yet somehow not dated thanks to a still relevant script and a lead character who never fails to command attention.
And wonder of wonders, despite the trilogy’s nearly four-hour running time, Villarreal’s compelling, hilarious, deeply moving performance and Fierstein’s exceptional script add up to nary a dull or antsy moment from 7:00 to 11:00.
Nori is a talented, GQ-gorgeous Italian charmer who would be better served were Ed made European. Pearce and Wallace have some terrific moments as Laurel and Alan (despite the latter’s miscasting) that add pizzazz and heart to Fugue In A Nursery.
Producers David C. Carnevale and Joey Baital once again work production design wonders on a shoestring budget, particularly when Act Three reveals hidden treats. The duo’s costumes, lighting, and sound design are all first-rate as well
EB Bohks is stage manager and Tiffany Kosek, Sydney Snyder, and Vanessa Babida are assistant stage managers.
Arguably the most monumental undertaking in Theatre Out history, Torch Song Trilogy may not be the unqualified success that Harvey Fierstein fans have been waiting for, but thanks to Villarreal (and Act Three’s Kelley), the moments of brilliance it attains more than overcome its flaws.
Theatre Out, 402 W. 4th Street, Santa Ana.
April 23, 2106